EU’s Brexit negotiator says talks on citizens’ rights can’t be reopened

Michel Barnier
Reuters / Scanpix

“In the legal text, the draft treaty, this is not a speech, we have agreed that all and every articles linked to the protection of the citizens, these points cannot be reopened,” Barnier, on a visit to Vilnius, told BNS in an interview.

The negotiator thinks that Lithuanian businesses working with the UK market should start preparing right now for post-Brexit economic relations.

He expects to reach a timely agreement with Britain on all Brexit points.

BNS: How would you sum up the Brexit process at this moment of time in one sentence?

Barnier: It is different to summarize the process and to say where we are. We are at the moment of truth. Just four months before the European Council in October where we need to conclude the agreement.

It is a long process, difficult to summarize, with several steps. All the steps are linked to the decision of the UK to leave. So, to summarize my feeling, we regret profoundly this vote but we respect it. Now we are at the crucial times, four months before the European Council where we must conclude, because in the process we have to keep time for the ratification of the treaty. I am working mainly under the Brexit issue, which is the divorce or the separation.

In my view, what is much more important, much more interesting is what will be after for the future relation, the building of future relation, but the prerequisite, the precondition is to conclude the agreement. It is important to conclude because we are working for a deal of the withdrawal, because it is the precondition for everything else.

BNS: How do you envision political and economic partnership between the UK and a country like Lithuania, which is staying in the EU, after the Brexit?

Barnier: It is the same for each and every EU member state. More or less than 8 percent of the exports of Lithuania are for the UK, 60 percent for the rest of the EU today. It is more or less the average for every country. It means that we have to build the best relation as possible with the UK to maintain this trade but also, at the same time, we have to be careful and to protect the single market. All my negotiation is based on the strategy to create the best relation as possible with the UK, respecting the red line of the UK and asking to respect our principles and also to protect the single market.

BNS: The UK is one of the major trading partners for Lithuanian economy. Should Lithuanian firms start preparing for a post Brexit trading relationship right now and how can they do it?

Barnier: My answer is yes and it is my key message, after explaining where we are in the negotiations, to all the stakeholders. We have to be prepared for all the options, including the “no deal”. It cannot be business as usual. It will not be business as usual because the UK is leaving. Not only leaving the EU, but leaving the single market and the customs union. We have to be prepared for some change. For instance, we have to organize everywhere the new external borders. Lithuania, France, Greece, and Ireland, we have to be prepared to implement controls on goods.

It is necessary not to lose time because the Brexit will happen in less than one year, March of 2019. Obviously, if we succeed to reach an agreement, we will have 21 months more as status quo, maintaining the single market, all the policies and the customs union. We will have 21 months more to prepare.

If there is no deal, we have to prepare for the worst even if we work for the best. In that case, there is no transition.

BNS: How likely is the “no deal” scenario today?

Barnier: I am working for a deal. We are prepared for all options, including the worst, but we are working for a deal because I think it is a common interest.

To be clear, if we look at the draft treaty we published six or seven weeks ago with my team under the control of the European Council and the European Parliament, we have already colored green 80 percent of the contents with the Brits. Key points for the Lithuanian citizens living in the UK. 120,000 people among the 3.5 million European citizens living in the UK. We have secured the rights of all these people in the draft treaty. For their lives and all their rights. For themselves, for their families and for the duration of their lives. This point is agreed with the Brits. Obviously, the legal certainty will come only with the ratification.

We have agreed with the Brits for a very key point for your country, which is the financial settlement. The Brits agree to pay each and every commitment they have taken during their membership. That means that we have secured the financing of all the current programs, including the funds needed for Ignalina (nuclear power plant decommissioning), for instance.

So, now we have to reach an agreement for the 20 percent that remain, which are the most difficult. Governance of the treaty and the Irish case around the Northern Ireland.

BNS: Have you ever wondered what would happen to the EU and to the UK after Brexit if there is no deal in place?

Barnier: Number one, there is no added value to Brexit. Brexit is a lose-lose negotiation. Number two, if there is no deal, it will be a cliff edge and the UK will fall into a situation of a third country in the framework of the World Trade Organization. That means tariff barriers and controls everywhere for every good coming inside the EU. We are prepared. It is not my option.

As for the EU, we will remain in the single market. Our main asset is this ecosystem of rules, standards, common certification for products and common regulation for financial services.

440 million people and 22 million businesses will remain. We are protected by the single market.

BNS: The no “hard border” with Ireland position was agreed at the end of last year. Also, at that time, the UK and EU agreed that citizens’ rights of both parties will be protected. Could this question surface again onto the negotiations table if other issues like the Irish border are not solved?

Barnier: No. The point was agreed in December, including the citizens’ rights on both sides. 4.5 million people, including the UK citizens living in Lithuania, France or Spain. This point is clearly agreed. In the legal text, the draft treaty, this is not a speech, we have agreed that all and every articles linked to the protection of the citizens, these points cannot be reopened.

We have not agreed on Ireland yet. Ireland is key because if we want the withdrawal agreement, we must have an operational solution for Ireland in the treaty.

BNS: What solution do you see?

Barnier: We have proposed a solution already in this treaty. This part is not in green. We have proposed a realistic solution, which is to integrate the Northern Ireland exceptionally in our customs union. This means that this part of the UK will be in a specific situation being part of our customs territory and some part of our single market.

It is an exceptional proposal, to take into account the unique situation of Ireland. We cannot rebuild the border between the Northern Ireland and Ireland. At the same time, we must implement controls for the goods to protect the EU citizens, consumers and businesses. That means we have to implement controls somewhere else. We have proposed a solution and, to be clear, the solution is not putting at risk the integrity of United Kingdom.

This solution respects the institutional order of the UK. I think it is possible if we speak clearly and precisely of these controls, which are custom checks, safety, veterinary, phytosanitary controls. I think it is possible to agree with the Brits on the very precise and concrete operational controls. We need to protect the single market. We are ready to improve and ready to amend our proposal but in any case we must have and we will have an operational backstop in the treaty by October.

BNS: Will you be able to persuade the British government on this?

Barnier: It is a negotiation. We have to respect each other. We have to take into account what the UK wants or does not want. There is no reason to unravel what we achieved together with the UK because the UK is leaving.

BNS: Can you assure us that the rights of the EU citizens in the UK will be protected during and after Brexit?

Barnier: The rights of all these people, including the 120,000 Lithuanian citizens who arrived in the UK before the end of December 2020, will be protect for the duration of their lives, the resident and social rights for themselves and their family. But I am not speaking of the citizens from Lithuania, Germany or France coming to the UK after the 1st of January 2021. This will depend on what will happen with the new immigration policy of the UK. I do not know this policy yet.

BNS: How are we going to treat the UK citizens after the whole Brexit process is over and are we going to expect the same treatment for the citizens of the EU?

Barnier: Yes, we will continue to work on the base of reciprocity. We have already in our treaties many directives, protecting the rights of the third country citizens and it will apply to the UK citizens.

This point is not for the negotiations now under the withdrawal agreement. It will be a point for negotiations about the future relation, what we call a future partnership with the UK. To be clear, as far as the movement of people is concerned, we will be very careful to avoid any kind of discrimination from the UK.

BNS: What are you hoping to see in Theresa May’s newest Brexit white paper, which will be discussed by her cabinet this Friday?

Barnier: We follow this debate and we hope to find in this White paper, which is about the future relation, realistic and practical solutions for future relations.

BNS: Will this plan provide a breakthrough in the negotiations?

Barnier: We are waiting for realistic and practical solutions, taking into account the respect of our principles, and the UK knows quite well our principles, exactly as we respect the red lines of the UK.

There are key points which are not negotiable. The integrity of the single market, the four freedoms are indivisible, the autonomy of the decision and the protection of the fundamental rights of the citizens.

BNS: Thank you for the interview.

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